Tom Leppert: Same As He Ever Was

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After Tom Leppert coasted into the mayor’s office in June, I decided he and I needed to take a little break. It wasn’t an easy decision. In the spring of 2007, I learned so much about him, from how his single mother inspired his heartland values to how he never swore throughout the protracted campaign. Most of all, I learned that Tom Leppert believed Dallas could be the greatest city in America, a statement he delivered without doubt, qualification or irony.

Of course, I needled him every now and then for repeating pro-business platitudes as if they were revelations from a Fifth Gospel. I also lamented how the former construction executive never wandered into the land of details when answering a question about police, taxes or economic growth. I even took cheap shots at his facial twitch a time or two.

Yet despite such digs, Leppert always returned my calls and remained friendly, polite and upbeat. That’s how he always was. When his desperate rivals tried to egg him on in the final stages of the general election, Leppert merely smiled and ignored them, delivering cookie-cutter stump speeches that would have applied to about 10 different American cities. Well done.

After Leppert coasted past the flailing Ed Oakley in the June run-off, it seemed like it was time to move on. I needed to find someone else to write about since mayor choirboy here didn’t give me a whole lot to work with. Never angry or petulant, always full of hope and an earnest sense of purpose, Leppert reminded me a little too much of the woman Tom Petty abandons in “Free Falling”: “He’s a good boy. Loves his mamma. Loves Jesus and Dallas too.

Still, I watched the new mayor from afar. Then, on Wednesday, more than two months after the Dallas Citizens Council bequeathed him his royal throne, I finally caught Mayor Leppert in action presiding over a city council meeting. What I found was the same inoffensive corporate leader I had come to respect begrudgingly on the campaign trail. My guess is his style will prove to be rather effective, though not necessarily enlightened. That’s just a guess, though, and many of my other ones -- like the prediction on Tom Leppert not making the run-off -- wound up to be dead wrong. So don’t take any of this to the bank. Still, here are a few observations about the mayor I just can’t quit:

He’s still a vague and bland debater.

On Wednesday, the council engaged in a lively and surprisingly intelligent debate on whether to scrap the city’s alarm policy, known as verified response. Under that policy, the police department won’t respond to a business alarm unless the owner or a security guard has confirmed that a burglar triggered it and not a squirrel, gust of wind or clumsy employee. The council adopted the policy two years ago after the police brass talked about how more than 97 percent of the alarms they respond to are false.

“Verified response is and was the utilization of scarce resources,” said council member Vonciel Hill. “It doesn’t make sense to continue to send scarce resources to respond to false alarms.” Of course, the other side pointed to the folly of having small business owners be the ones to catch a thief.

“I’m not going to send a citizen without a gun permit playing Wyatt Earp running to their business at a high speed to protect their store,” countered council member Dwaine Caraway, who has a knack for clever sound bites.

“Dallas is in a sorry state of affairs when we can not offer our businesses police protection,” added council member Mitchell Rasansky.

Just about every council member offered compelling points for and against verified response. They used vivid anecdotes, trotted out persuasive data and employed colorful rhetoric. Then there was the mayor, who spoke last on this topic, but didn’t exactly pull from the speeches of Winston Churchill to punctuate the proceedings. Here’s are some representative remarks:

“The process has worked and that’s exactly what should happen.”

“It’s been a good debate; it’s been a fair debate.”

“In the end, we have to be concerned not just about the economics of the policy but the wider message it sends. I don’t think this policy sends a good message.”

“This is not a good policy and is not a policy that allows us to build the city of Dallas and build it in a way to keep the city moving forward.”

“Life is a highway. I want to ride it all night long.”

Actually, the last one was Tom Cochrane, not Tom Leppert. Same difference.

In the end, Leppert, who campaigned on scrapping the city’s alarm policy, prevailed as the council easily voted to do away with verified response. So that speaks well for his powers of persuasion. But on other, more controversial issues, like, say, the Trinity toll road referendum, the mayor’s penchant for lite-rock rhetoric might not serve him well.

Then again, Leppert’s predecessor could turn a phrase, and look what that did for her.

They like Leppert; they really do.

Nearly the entire council seems to genuinely admire their mayor. Even during the debate over verified response, none of the council members who argued to keep the policy took so much as a veiled shot at him. Had this been Laura Miller, they would have come at her with all guns blazing. Then again, Leppert goes out of his way to avoid criticizing his colleagues -- or anyone else, for that matter.

So far, Leppert’s been able to line up votes on his side. Perhaps most impressively, he enlisted 13 other council members to come out against Angela Hunt’s referendum to scrap the toll road. I say "most impressively" because I don’t know how the mayor convinced the entire council to oppose a referendum that garnered more support than any of them did. I almost think he could persuade them to come over to his place and watch The Lake House on DVD.

“The mayor has proven to this point to be a very fair person,” says Caraway. “He’s getting along with everybody and he commands a lot of respect from everybody.”

Well. Not exactly, which leads us to…

What Leppert did to Hunt was just plain dumb.

As you no doubt know by now, Leppert didn’t appoint Hunt to a single leadership position on any council committee, an obvious snub of the popular second-term council member for listening to more than 50,000 voters who’d prefer a park instead of a highway by the river. In Dallas, listening to regular people qualifies as a sordid crime punishable only by social exile.

Leppert gave a procedural explanation for Hunt’s omission. He told me he tried to have returning council members chair committees in their areas of expertise. Meanwhile, the mayor said he chose fresh first-termers as the vice chairs.

But by that logic, Hunt should have earned some sort of leadership position on the Trinity River Committee, in place of David Neumann, a first-termer. Instead, Hunt was left out of the committee altogether -- obvious payback for her decision to represent the wishes of taxpayers.

If Leppert were really being honest, he’d admit that his toll road adversary knows more about the sprawling, massive public works project than anyone on the council. Hell, he should also give her extra credit for being the only council member fit enough to have biked along the riverbanks. In contrast, Sheffie Kadane looks like he’d have a heart attack if he so much as walked from one end of the horseshoe to the other.

So why didn’t Leppert at least make her the vice chair of the Trinity River committee? Wouldn’t her input be valuable? Why did he leave her off the committee entirely?

“Clearly I wanted to reflect the interests of 14 out of 15 council members,” Leppert says.

Then again, I dutifully reminded the mayor that Hunt’s petition, which triggered the referendum, got more votes than him or anyone else on the council. Did he at least consider putting her on the committee as a lowly member? Leppert explained that he did but again felt like she was out of step with the rest of the council.

OK, I asked the mayor this: Had Hunt never opposed the toll road, would you have given her any type of leadership position, whatsoever?

“That’s a hypothetical, and I had to deal with what was out there.”

Geez. Isn’t the entire spectrum of political discourse premised on hypotheticals? If you elect me as your mayor, I will do…

Even if Leppert didn’t want Hunt anywhere near his Trinity River committee, he could’ve had her chair the public safety committee. Hunt’s district includes such hot spots as downtown, Oak Lawn and Lower Greenville, where crime always threatens the city’s nightlife. She’s also won applause from business owners and neighborhoods alike for listening and addressing their concerns about quality-of-life issues.

Besides, it’s not like Leppert has the highest standards for his council leaders anyway. Tennell Atkins, who is the vice chair of the council’s economic development committee, has been in bankruptcy, which would seem to run counter to the notion of economic development. The city of Dallas also sued Atkins's company, which rented hangers and office space at Redbird Airport, for "a consistent failure to perform its obligations.”

Atkins’s prior legal imbroglios don’t mean he should be kept out of any leadership spots -- his constituents knew about his troubles and still chose him overwhelmingly to represent them. But it doesn’t reflect well on Leppert’s fairness that he hands Atkins, a first-term council member, two leadership spots -- he chairs a committee and a task force -- while failing to find a single one for Hunt.

In the meantime, Hunt, who was on the losing side of three big votes on Wednesday, would be wise to recall to the wisdom of Charlemagne: “Let my armies be the rocks and the trees and the birds in the sky.”

The mayor and the rest of the council have tried to marginalize Hunt, but her power rests outside of City Hall with the everyday people who signed her petition. With a level of name recognition that rivals the mayor and dwarfs the rest of her largely anonymous colleagues, Hunt will be able to exact more change as an outsider than she ever could as one of Leppert’s lap dogs.

So far, the Dallas Citizens Council is getting what they paid for…

Although he’s only been in office two months, Leppert hasn’t forgotten the people who created him. All of his positions so far have been pro-business, and arguably at the expense of the folks Laura Miller occasionally cared about. His opposition to Hunt’s referendum is a boon to developers and area business owners and a poke in the face to the rest of us who would like to have a functional park downtown.

Then on Wednesday, the mayor also voted in favor of making it easier for oil and gas companies to drill on public land, rejecting calls from Hunt and Mitchell Rasansky to toughen the restrictions on where they can operate. Even the mayor’s decision to scrap verified response may come at the expense of regular citizens if the police can’t show up in time to a mugging because they’re at the scene of a false alarm at a North Dallas boutique.

“In my opinion it was a victory of the private interests over the public interests,” says Mayor Pro Tem Elba Garcia, who argued in favor of verified response.

Give the mayor credit, however, for being predictable. Of all the bromides the mayor proffered during the campaign, almost none of them touched on neighborhoods. Instead, Leppert focused exclusively on expanding the tax base, which now means making life as easy as possible for business owners.

Leppert is starting to discover that his opponents were right.

During the campaign, Leppert attacked rival Max Wells (remember him?) when Wells called for a referendum on a sales tax to pay for more police officers. Again and again, Leppert said he was confident the city could put more cops on the street without hiking taxes.

“We've got to use the existing budget structure to address our priority,” Leppert told The Dallas Morning News in March.

Later, during the run-off, Oakley challenged him to explain how he’d hire more cops without raising taxes or cutting services. In one debate, Oakley offered to go back to his car and retrieve the budget book for Leppert to peruse.

Leppert should have taken him up on it. Mary Suhm’s proposed $2.65 billion budget, which puts 200 new officers on the street, calls for a tax rate increase of 2.17 cents per $100 in property valuation. Leppert says that he’d like to whittle that number down to zero, but his own chief of staff acknowledges how difficult that’s going to be.

“Everybody would love to get the needs of their city met without a tax increase,” says Chris Heinbaugh, the former ace reporter for WFAA-Channel 8. “Everybody is working toward that goal, but I don’t know if that’s possible.”

Heinbaugh adds, “He’s going to work very hard to get it down to zero. He ran on that, and that’s important to him. But there are 14 other council members, and they have priorities for their district and for the city.”

Of course, Leppert’s opponents already explained those political realities during the campaign, but he merely scoffed at them without offering a detailed plan of his own. I asked Leppert this week what he'd do if he had to make a choice between keeping two campaign pledges -- putting more officers on the street and not raising taxes -- and he explained to me that he wanted to do both. If he does, kudos. But just about nobody thinks that’s going to happen.

Says Hunt, “Mary Suhm’s budget calls for a tax increase, and that’s what we will be voting on.” --Matt Pulle

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